by David Masci, Senior Research Fellow

Oct. 1 marks the 50th anniversary of the appearance of “In God We Trust” on the paper currency of the United States. The phrase, which is the nation’s official motto as well, has been caught in a broader debate over just how high the wall separating church and state should stand.

Many people see the “In God We Trust” motto and other official evocations of a creator as a reflection and acknowledgement of America’s rich religious heritage. Supporters also contend that the motto is simply a recognition of the fact that the people of the United States have always relied on “divine providence.”

But others argue that the government’s evocation of God in any official capacity amounts to the establishment of a state religion, which is prohibited by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Critics also say that “In God We Trust” is divisive because it excludes those who don’t believe in God, as well as Buddhists, Hindus and others who follow non-monotheistic faiths.

An overwhelming majority of Americans support using “In God We Trust” on the country’s currency and as the national motto. For instance, a 2003 Gallup poll found that 90 percent of respondents approved of the use of the motto on coins. A separate Gallup poll in 2004 found that a similar majority expressed support for retaining the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

The constitutionally of the motto has been challenged more than once, but so far judges have ruled that its use does not violate the First Amendment’s prohibition on the establishment of religion. In the first case challenging the motto, Aronow v. U.S. (1970), the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that “its use is of patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise.” The case was not appealed to the Supreme Court.

Subsequent challenges have also been turned aside, including the Supreme Court’s refusal in 2005 to hear an appeal to a lower court ruling that the placement of “In God We Trust” on a government building was constitutional. In 2006, a federal district court affirmed the constitutionality of the motto in a suit brought by California doctor and attorney Michael Newdow that sought to have it removed from the nation’s currency. Newdow had previously gained notoriety when he had similarly tried – unsuccessfully – to have “under God” removed from the Pledge of Allegiance.

In general, judges have differentiated the “In God We Trust” motto and similar references to the deity (including the phrase “under God” in the pledge) from other publicly sponsored religious practices, such as prayer and Bible reading in public schools. Most courts view the motto and the pledge as “ceremonial deism,” a legal term for religious statements that are deemed to have lost their fundamental religious character due to their longtime, customary use.

Although the term “ceremonial deism” was first coined in the early 1960s, the government’s acceptance and use of customary religious statements dates back to the nation’s beginning. The Declaration of Independence, for instance, makes reference to God on more than one occasion. And the same Congress that in 1789 passed the First Amendment prohibition on the establishment of religion also started each day with a prayer, as does the current Congress.

The official use of “In God We Trust” dates back to the Civil War era. In 1861, the Rev. M. R. Watkinson, a Christian minister from Ridley Township, Pa., sent a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase urging “the recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins.” Chase agreed and ordered the director of the mint to prepare a motto for use on coins. The director proposed “God, Our Trust”; Chase altered the phrase to “In God We Trust,” which first appeared on a two-cent coin in 1864. The next year, Congress authorized the mint to put the motto on all silver and gold coins that had space for the phrase.

In the decades following the Civil War, “In God We Trust” appeared on most coins. And since 1938, the motto has appeared on all American coinage. In 1956, during the height of the Cold War struggle with the officially atheist Soviet Union, Congress passed a joint resolution, signed by President Dwight Eisenhower, declaring “In God We Trust” to be the national motto. The following year, on Oct. 1, the motto appeared for the first time on paper currency – on the back of the dollar bill.

Fifty years later, “In God We Trust” continues to be displayed on all U.S. currency as well as on countless government buildings. Just last year, the phrase was adopted by the state of Florida as its official motto. And earlier this year, Indiana began offering drivers “In God We Trust” license plates.

At the same time, the motto continues to stir opposition. A few months after Indiana issued its new license plate, the state’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles was sued by the Indiana American Civil Liberties Union and others. The case is awaiting trial.